Tonight Is No-Refusal Night: Behind the Scenes of a DWI

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Tonight is no-refusal night.
Happy Friday! It's the joyous start to the weekend, that grateful lapse between the freshly dead workweek and the one that looms next. It's also the kickoff to no-refusal weekend, HPD's drunk driving initiative. If you're pulled over on suspicion of being drunk and refuse a breathalyzer either tonight or tomorrow, police will obtain a search warrant and draw your blood.

I went along for the ride late one Friday with Officer Michael Bostain, a 16-year veteran policeman.

It all begins around 11 p.m., when Bostain and I hit Hempstead Highway. It takes all of two minutes for him to flick the flashing lights on his first drunk driver. "He's going a little fast," Bostain explains -- 54 in a 40. The man steps out of the car, where he leaves his wife and his ten-year-old son. He's got a long beard, eyeglasses and a backwards cap.

After obtaining his license, Bostain gets back in the car and calls for backup. He wants two cameras rolling when the field sobriety test starts. "Is he trashed?" I ask. "He's real close," Bostain says, even though the man swore he only had two drinks. "No one ever has more than two," Bostain says with a smile.

Then the tests begin. Here's what to expect, should you ever find yourself outside of the City Limits motel on a cold night with only your beard and alcohol fumes to keep you warm:

1. Nystagmus Test -- Bostain steps up close to the man, shines a light in his eyes and asks him to follow it. If your eyes can't follow the light smoothly, you're more likely to be under the influence.

2. Walk-and-Turn Test -- Take nine steps, heel-to-toe, along a straight imaginary line. Turn on one foot, and repeat the steps coming back. Bostain demonstrates. The man takes his first shaky step. He wobbles forward eight more paces, does a shaky U-turn, and almost falls on the way back.

(Note: Defense attorneys say you should politely refuse to participate in what they call "roadside gymnastics.")

These are the warning signs cops look for: if you can't keep your balance during the instructions, if you can't follow the instructions, if you use your arms to keep your balance, or if you miscount your steps. Two or more of these symptoms, and you're in trouble.

3. One-Leg Stand -- The next trick is balancing. You're instructed to stand with one leg six inches off the ground for 30 seconds, which you're in charge of counting. "Someone's on cocaine or PCP, and boom," Bostain snaps his fingers. "That's 30 seconds." This arrestee prolongs his leg-hopping agony for a whole minute -- typical, Bostain says, of depressants.

It's a pathetic performance, and the man is handcuffed and led to another officer's waiting car, where he takes a back seat with another arrestee. Both are headed to "Intox" at 61 Riesner, where they'll have their blood drawn. Bostain's arrestee would be headed there whether or not it was no-refusal night; if you drive drunk with a minor in the car, it's a mandatory blood draw.

"It's bad to take Dad to jail in front of a kid, but in this case, he's got to go," Bostain says.

The heady smell of alcohol hits us hard as we descend into Intox an hour later. About ten handcuffed Houstonians are divided by sex into two holding cells. A crumpled blond girl sobs alone with her head in her lap inside the jail cell. A police officer sitting in a rolling chair wheels himself over to the crying girl's cell. "What's wrong?" he asks her. "You've been crying this whole time." No answer. Louder sobs.

The men locked in the adjacent cell are having much more fun. Everyone's howling with drunken laughter, and even the cops seem to pick up the party spirit. One drunk guy walks backwards up to his arresting officer and offers a cuffed hand to shake. "Fun 'n games, man," one cop says to Bostain as he passes with an arrestee in tow.

Once the booze wears off, though, Intox seems anything but fun. The "blood-draw chair," for one, looks like something out of an insane asylum. Leather straps hang waiting to restrain you if you prove uncooperative.

HPD has been non-refusing on the weekends for the past three years. No-refusal weekend makes it easier to convict DWI offenders, Bostain says. But the process of contacting a judge, having the judge send a search warrant, processing the warrant and sending the offender back to the police station to have their blood drawn is a long one -- one that takes some time away from actual patrolling. "It's time-consuming," Bostain admits. "I think that's some of the frustration with the squad." But the evidence, he says, is good.

Bottom line: Unless you fetishize blood tests and have freakishly good balance, please get a cab tonight.

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